“There was no ‘first woman’”: The historical politics of gender, science, and exploration in twentieth-century US Antarctic fieldwork

Seag, Morgan 

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The following dissertation examines the history of gendered change in twentieth century Antarctic fieldwork, focused on the US Antarctic Research Program. It responds to the calls of feminist historical geographers and historians of science for critical analysis of gendered exclusion and inclusion in remote scientific spaces, which represents a lacuna in the studies of exploration and fieldwork. The dissertation responds with the first in-depth study of the norms, narratives, practices, and processes that underpinned the exclusion of women from US Antarctic activity through most of the twentieth century, as well as those that structured women’s eventual access. In so doing, it contributes to debates about gendered boundaries in science and exploration, illuminating a complex relationship between discursive and institutional change and arguing for greater appreciation of the link between historiography and social change.

The dissertation advances both chronologically and thematically, its structure guided by texts authored by a series of women who sought access to Antarctica in the twentieth century. Following the lead of their stories, each chapter examines a particular era in the development of US Antarctic science, politics, and culture and in the evolution of women’s access to the field. The resulting analysis not only recovers the contributions of women who have been marginalized from Antarctic history and historiography: it also reveals the contested ideological and administrative boundary work required to ensure women’s marginality, as well as the contingency and nonlinearity of eventual progress. Primary analysis is based on archival research and interviews. This includes analysis of underexamined sources in key archives as well as the recovery and/or creation of new source material, including archival records uncovered through the research process as well as dozens of new oral history interviews conducted with early women participants in Antarctic fieldwork.

Bravo, Michael
Historical geography, History of science, Antarctica, Gender
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
This PhD thesis was supported by a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. Additionally, archival work and interviews were supported by the Royal Geographical Society (with IGB) with a Dudley Stamp Memorial Award; by a grant-in-aid from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics; by a special project grant from the British Society for the History of Science; and by awards facilitated by the University of Cambridge Department of Geography.